The Athenian Agora Summer Volunteer Program will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year. When the American School began the program, it was considered a “radical departure in the conduct of excavation in Greece,” according to History of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1939-1980. In his book Agora Excavations 1931–2006, Deputy Director Craig Mauzy recounts the pioneering approach: “In 1980, there was a major change in the way the Agora was excavated. While a professional staff was maintained, including a core group of experienced Greek workmen, the actual digging would be done for the first time by student volunteers.”
The group of 40 students who dug that first summer has grown into a body of 805 alumni, hailing from approximately 180 different colleges and universities. The model of student excavators has become a hallmark of the field, and the Agora program still stands as one of the best introductions to archaeological excavation available to young scholars.
Ana Alvarez, an archaeology major at Bryn Mawr College and a first-time volunteer this past summer, shares: “Volunteering at the Athenian Agora has meant gaining unparalleled fieldwork experience.” She cites digging in the Omega House, a Late Roman domestic complex north of the Areopagus, as a highlight, explaining, “I had studied and written about the Omega House, but never imagined I would be able to excavate it and contribute to its opening to the public in the future. This experience further solidified my interest in household archaeology, an area of study where there is much left to be done.”
The program has a strong track record of volunteers returning and advancing. Laura Gawlinski, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Classical Studies at Loyola University Chicago is a prominent example. She states, “When I went to the Agora right after my first year of college in 1995, I definitely didn’t expect that I’d still be around decades later, supervising trenches, writing a new edition of the guide to the museum, and bringing my own students to excavate. It really opened up a lot of opportunities and interests for me, including the start of my involvement with the American School.”
Those who have pursued different careers carry with them an experience that still shapes their thinking and informs their work. Dominic Popielski, Vice President of Business and Economic Development at Spire reflects,“Being Vice President at an energy company is an improbable career path for an archaeologist. My curiosity about house construction and public development infrastructures developed while excavating at the Agora in 1996. Every day in my job, I still call upon those ways of thinking: experiencing something with your own eyes and hands, and considering what drives or changes infrastructure in various cultures from ancient to modern times.”
Training generations of excavators at the Agora fulfills the School’s mission of advancing knowledge of Greece in a direct, sustained way that also spreads that knowledge. Alumna Marcie Handler, a teacher at The Seven Hills School in Cincinnati, Ohio, acknowledges the ways the Agora has served as an inspiration at each stage of her vocation, recounting, “My first summer at the Agora Excavations in 1997 confirmed my desire to pursue a career related to the ancient world. The excavation also provided me with the material for my Ph.D. dissertation. Now that I am a middle school and high school Latin teacher, my continued participation in the excavation helps my students see that the study of the ancient world is very much alive, and that our understanding of it is constantly changing.”